How Government Investment in the Culture Economy Led to a Billion Dollar Industry

What burgeoning team sport phenomenon awarded over AU$20 million in prize money[1] this past August to a team of 5 players where the youngest broke onto the international competitive scene last year at the tender age of 15, and the oldest is nicknamed ‘Old Man’[2] at a mere 27 years of age? Here are some clues: Its players, bear nicknames like ‘Piglet’, ‘Faker’ and ‘Amazing’, its 119 pound (54kg) stars can mysteriously burn-out[3] at the age of 21[4], and its audience is already measured at 137 million people around the World. [5] Team names include ‘Evil Geniuses’, Cloud9 and fNatic.

I’ll give you just one more clue: The team is made up of what would typically be considered the least athletic people alive – geeks.

By now, most male readers under 30 will know what I’m talking about. The rest of you are probably scratching your head at this perversely inverted world where pimply nerds are sports heroes and worshipped by legions of female fans. [6]

The phenomenon in question is eSports in which computer gamers play against each other, frequently online, and at the elite level, in the flesh at stadiums including the Wembley Arena.[7] The game that awarded over $20 million in prize money is DOTA 2[8], a computer game that allows multiple players to compete online in a virtual battle arena, or a MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) for short. DOTA itself is an acronym for ‘Defence of the Ancients’, which is in turn, a spin-off of the extraordinarily popular ‘real-time strategy’ game[9], World of Warcraft 3 published by Blizzard Entertainment. The ‘2’ in Dota 2 refers to the fact that it is the second official version by Valve Corporation which produces and distributes games.[10]

But DOTA 2 is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ‘eSports’. Other games commanding multi-million dollar prize pools include League of Legends, Call of Duty and Smite.[11] These are just a few of the video games played competitively, described as ‘massively online battle arena’s’ or MOBA for short.

People from all corners of the ‘connected’ Earth play eSports against each other making it, in some ways, even more international than soccer/football where players are restrained by travel and passports to play against each other. Of course, in the interest of fairness, and to make their competitions a compelling live event, most competitions at the elite level require players to compete at the same venue on the same equipment live before an audience of screaming fans. Nevertheless, the purely online competitive component has its sophisticated leader boards, through which some child star players have emerged like ‘overnight’ sensations.[12]

Its nerdy star players look so much like you would expect a professional video gamer to look, it makes any parent wonder about the future health of their boy– or their girl.[13] Hailing from all the ‘nerd’ classes; pimply, deathly pale, skinny or overweight (but never physically well-developed), bespectacled, greasy-haired, Asian (even 2 of the Canadian DOTA 2 world champions ‘Evil Geniuses’ are of Asian descent) it is perhaps not surprising considering professional teams have coaches and rigorous training regimes,[14] big brand name sponsors,[15] as well as billionaire owners and backers,[16] just like ‘real’ sports teams.

What has this all got to do with the title of this article?

Here’s a hint. The ‘Super Nation’ of eSports is South Korea[17] where the micro-momentary expression of a pro-gamer losing to the upstart wunderkind, Faker, has its own meme page.[18]

In an impressive display of government intervention triumphing over the free market, the Korean government made a conscious decision nearly 20 years ago to promote its ‘soft power’.[19] Frequently the historical whipping boy of its near-Asian neighbours, China and Japan, and with a mere fraction of the people of those populous giants, Korea’s government felt it needed to somehow compete with its historical ‘big brothers’. During this time, not only did it provide universal superfast broadband, but it sponsored the development of its key cultural industries, including film, television, popular music, and of course, gaming. The rest, as they say, is history.

[1]Source: http://www.esportsearnings.com/tournaments/12894-the-international-2015

[2] http://evilgeniuses.gg/Profile/13,Fear/

[3] http://www.kotaku.com.au/2015/02/one-of-league-of-legends-best-players-gets-benched/

[4] http://lol.gamepedia.com/Piglet

[5] https://www.superdataresearch.com/blog/esports-brief/

[6] http://espn.go.com/espn/feature/story/_/id/13035450/league-legends-prodigy-faker-carries-country-shoulders

[7] https://www.google.com.au/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=sse+arena+wembley+wikipedia&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&gfe_rd=cr&ei=GBgnVozSJdDu8wfqg7gQ

[8] http://www.playdota.com

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Real-time_strategy

[10] The history of how DOTA 2 came to be it itself an interesting illustration of the power of the crowd-sourcing phenomenon, where a fan of the game, known only under the ‘handle’ (alias) of Eul, kicked off a chain of successive iterations by even more fans adept at programming.   Ultimately, Valve commissioned the last in this line of fans, ‘Ice Frog’ to help build their official version of DOTA 2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defense_of_the_Ancients#Development ; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defense_of_the_Ancients#Sequel

[11] http://www.esportsearnings.com/tournaments

[12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lee_%22Faker%22_Sang-hyeok

[13] All-female eSports teams exist e.g. Girls HK, Team Siren, and presently, a select few, earn respectable prize money: http://www.kotaku.com.au/2015/08/hong-kong-gets-its-first-all-female-league-of-legends-team/ ; http://team-dignitas.net/articles/blogs/No%20Category/3465/Call-Your-Shot-What-Do-You-Think-Introducing-Team-Siren ; http://www.esportsearnings.com/players/female_players . However, they are still a minority in eSports: http://www.polygon.com/2014/5/27/5723446/women-in-esports-professional-gaming-riot-games-blizzard-starcraft-lol

[14] http://www.liquiddota.com/forum/dota-2-general/462152-coaching-in-esports-a-comprehensive-look

[15] http://fortune.com/2014/07/24/esports-sponsors/

[16] http://dota2.gamepedia.com/Invictus_Gaming

[17]http://www.pcworld.com/article/2036844/why-gamers-in-asia-are-the-worlds-best-esport-athletes.html ;


[18] https://www.facebook.com/H2K-Ryus-face-memes-480179422135007/ . The original expression can be seen at around 13 seconds in at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPCfoCVCx3U

[19] http://www.creativetransformations.asia/2014/05/the-k-pop-factory-phenomenon/